7 min read

Meditating Is The New Jogging

More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.
- Reynolds Ad Campaign, 1946
No matter how much or how long you've smoked, it's never too late to quit smoking. Quitting smoking has health benefits for anyone at any age. Get help quitting smoking
- CDC, 2024

People alive today can remember a time when it was the conventional wisdom of western society that smoking was good for you and that running around the local park was the purview of the insane. It's possible for an entire society to be totally confused with something very important. It has been speculated that 'sitting is the next smoking', the leading contender for this process of social revision, and I agree, but I contend that we are missing something bigger: mental fitness. I predict that future generations will partake in 150 minutes of 'mental exercise' alongside their recommended 'physical exercise' and look back on this era with derision.

Today I’ll define mental fitness, explore how we could have overlooked something so fundamental to our fulfilment, make those multiple benefits explicit, and share the main recommendations for building mental fitness. 

What is Mental Fitness?

While 'fitness' has become synonymous with athleticism, it comes from the level of 'fit' that one has to their environment. For the Olympic Javelin thrower, that environment is indeed the field in Paris in a few months' time. For the rest of us it simply means how well adapted we are to respond to the demands of everyday life.

This definition makes it clearer how the concept applies to our mental state. We are using our brains all the time, and our environment is changing constantly. If my environment is writing this article, my mental fitness may be how well I am able to focus on writing it without procrastinating or getting distracted, and whether I think negative thoughts if I notice that I have. More generally, we are constantly reacting to the world around us and the thoughts in our heads. To what extent do these things control us or prevent us from living fulfilled lives versus the other way around?

Like physical fitness there are different components of mental fitness. Jenna Sinclair, an expert in Applied Positive Psychology, defines mental strength as "a state of thinking, feeling, and performing at your best where you have the skills needed to improve and maintain your well-being". Mental flexibility is the extent to which we can adjust our perspectives and trains of thought based on the situation we are in or are prompted to imagine. Mental agility is the ability to do this in multiple directions in rapid succession. Mental endurance is most akin to our concept of resilience - a topic with so much depth I will likely commit next week's post entirely to it. 

This definition helps us fit in with existing paradigms of physical fitness, for example how mental fitness builds on a foundation of mental health. Someone with poor physical health, say a torn knee ligament or being overweight, ought to focus on addressing those things first before further physical training. Here we see the link between trauma therapy for mental health and physical therapy for physical health. We can often neglect to process traumatic experiences which may be like recovering from a sprained ankle, for example. It may 'heal' on its own with enough rest but without specific treatment it will continue to cause us suffering potentially for the rest of our lives. This can be true of something from a pulled muscle up to a broken knee. 

Both physical and mental fitness should be understood as holistic disciplines. We have more recently understood that physical fitness is improved through areas seemingly unrelated such as nutrition, sleep, social life/community, and indeed mental fitness (even if we haven't called it that until now). As we'll explore more below, mental fitness is the same. That said, the range of activities to build general mental fitness which become more specialised as the environment to 'fit' becomes more specialised. 

I would welcome more research into how existing paradigms can be helpful in establishing mental fitness and where new ones are needed.

How could we have missed something so big?

We understand that physical training is real, we can see the landmarks, we know it is possible. Yet we’re unaware of mental training. Extreme physical transformations are rare but possible - if we don’t decide to get in the best shape it isn’t because we don’t know it’s possible. Yet we don’t know this on mental side - we urgently need a new norm of human growth.

It is no overstatement that all the worlds chaos and suffering are symptoms of people’s minds being out of control - a lack of mental fitness. Until there is no suffering, we should be calling for better mental health and fitness. A BetterUp poll found "57% of employees...are “languishing” — defined as the absence of mental health, characterized by dissatisfaction, lack of engagement or excitement, apathy, and loss of interest. The world is changing at an ever-faster rate and most of us losing the war for attention. This is true of technology development but also climate change, politics, and global risks.

The benefits of mental fitness

Mental fitness is a direct path to experiencing less suffering. We all experience situations that generate negative thoughts and feelings in us. We often stew in them for extended periods, lacking the knowledge or forethought that we could choose not to feel that way. How long do you want to stay locked in the prison of emotional turmoil? What might you do there that you can’t undo? You can decide how long you want to stay angry for. With mental training you can get off the ride before you say or do something you regret. 

This is true of one-off negative experiences or prolonged ones – mental fitness improves resilience, your ability to be challenged by your environment and remain level-headed. Building mental fitness means that we’re less likely to “get injured” when life takes a turn and are more able to regain our higher mental state afterwards. 

On a more positive note, mental fitness has been shown to lead to greater optimism, self-compassion, self-esteem, self-efficacy, and empathy. It increases your capacity to be present, enabling better listening, information retention, and awareness of, but not getting sabotaged by, distractions. It improves cognitive function, providing better focus, processing speed, memory, concentration, time management, and communication. It also reduces cognitive biases such as polarised thinking or mind-reading which often eventually lead to suffering of some form.

Beyond all this there are indirect, holistic positive impacts on your life. It helps you expand your comfort zone to enable exploring new ideas and interests. It helps generate mental bandwidth through a comfort with boundary setting, improves relationships, and can improve sleep. 

I’m sure there are many more benefits but, frankly, if you still need convincing at this point you might be a lost cause.

How to build mental fitness

Through a similar dynamic to muscles growing with physical exercise, the brain forms neural pathways that become stronger with use. By repeating a thought or action, it becomes part of the physical structure of your brain. The stronger a neural pathway becomes, the more automatic and frequent the thought or belief becomes, which influences the way we behave and the energy we put into our work, relationships, and life. This is how we bring about the cognitive, emotional, and ethical changes that the brain is responsible for.

First, we must build a foundation of mental health. This means sleeping well, eating well, and maintaining strong relationships. To our point on it being a holistic discipline, it also requires physical exercise. Therapy can be a highly effective tool to aid recovery from trauma, whether recent or historic-yet-untreated as in our sprained ankle example above. 

Then we can train for mental fitness and the core of this is a mindfulness meditation practice, the benefits of which I shared previously. Real meditation is an essential piece as it provides the range of exercises and lessons needed to develop the ability to observe our thoughts and feelings and detach from them that is fundamental to mental fitness. I personally recommend the Waking Up app by Sam Harris, you can get a free 30-day pass here and I challenge anyone to not be transformed after even just the 28-day introductory course. Once you have learned the core practice of meditation, you can access these insights while jogging or listening to music, for example. It's important that this is not the same as the 'switching off' feeling you may derive from those activities normally, rather practices such as ‘noticing’ and ‘savouring’ that can be performed among the business of the world.

Beyond meditation, journaling is a common and effective tool. It helps build a habit of noticing and self-reflecting, and keeping a gratitude journal is particularly effective to creating ‘gratitude-centric’ neural pathways. Positive affirmations are another high-rep exercise to retrain automatic negative neural pathways (read: thoughts) into positive ones. They can be a journaling practice or, possibly more effectively, said out loud in front of a mirror to avoid going on autopilot.

To improve fitness to your environment it is vital to put yourself in new, challenging environments, either literally or in the form of exposure to new ideas. It’s important to get out of your comfort zone. I like the metaphor of stretching the elastic band - want there to be tension but not so much that it snaps. Mental flexibility is how far you can stretch it. Endurance/resilience is how long you can last with it being stretched.

Finally coaching is the ‘personal training’ of mental fitness. Having a skilled practitioner guide you through exercises that are more tailored to your environment and hold you accountable to doing your homework is one of the most effective paths to higher states of mental fitness. LeBron James can’t be LeBron James without a whole team of coaches and trainers. This is no different. Often a therapist can transition into this role, though it is likely preferable to have the distinction of separate people, and it is certainly possible to have both at the same time.


Greater understanding of the concept of mental fitness is the first step to it becoming recognised as a fundamental pillar of human fulfilment that society overlooked for generations. Hopefully it can soon take on the same high-status of activity that physical fitness and exercise now hold. Long gone are the days where recreational running was sneered at.

It's similar also that different people will have different goals for their mental fitness. Some will seek Buddhist goal of Nirvana - akin to being a world-class athlete but with similar downsides in terms of the sacrifices required to reach this goal. As I suggested last time, Jhana may be the goal that is 'healthiest' for most people to strive for – the step before Nirvana that requires much less sacrifice. For others, the mental equivalent of 150 mins of physical exercise a week will be all they need to feel much more fulfilled.

We must remember that - much like physical fitness - the majority don't currently have the mental bandwidth needed to access it. There is plenty of research showing the correlation between poverty and poor physical and mental health. Mental fitness should be a right, not a privilege. We will do in our ideal future, but we must prioritise equality of mental bandwidth to achieve this. And it is self-reinforcing - mental fitness helps reinforce and create mental bandwidth. Means we need the activation energy to overcome the barrier to entry. This should be a priority for our strategy today.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.